Mario Batali has the toughest act to follow in New York dining: himself. I’ve eaten at his Italian restaurants—Babbo, Lupa, Esca and Otto—over two dozen times and never had a bad meal. Consistent excellence, and relentless Food Network appearances, have turned molto Mario into the most talked-about chef in town; in recent weeks, the rumor mill even suggested that Del Posto, his latest venture with mother-son team Lidia and Joe Bastianich, might well become the first four-star Italian restaurant in the city. But to these taste buds, it has a ways to go.
Much has been made of the $29 valet parking and coy reservationists, but I was more unnerved by the un-Batali, upscale-hotel vibe. The big open space feels like a lobby: There’s a lounge to the left, fine dining to the right, private tables upstairs and giant drapes blotting out the view of the Meatpacking District. In the background, a live pianist played sleepy sonatas. On the plus side, the noticeably large tables are spaced generously apart from one another. The service is knowledgeable, omnipresent and invisible. And the wine list features some great Italian choices in all price ranges.
The first food to hit the table was a not-especially memorable bread basket, accompanied by butter and rosemary-seasoned lardo. I could not sample all 16 or so antipasti available, but the ones I did try showed some originality. The seafood salad was light, non-oily and came with seaweed. The vegetable fritto misto included orange slices and a tasty anchovy-and-garlic sauce. The otherwise boring porcini salad was saved by powerful fennel flavor. And my favorite appetizer, the salami-like cotechino sausage, was pulled from the world’s swankest hot dog cart and sliced over lentils; the garlicky, molasses flavor resonated for minutes.
The pastas are unimpeachable successes. A bomb of fresh lemon accompanied each bite of the marshmallow-soft ricotta-stuffed tortelli, and the spinach tagliatelle is pure food porn; the savory, rich bolognese ragù painted each strand beautifully. Unfortunately, you pay for the pleasure; primis run as high as $27, and that’s a lot to spend on spaghetti, even if it does have crab in it.
The main courses just never thrilled me the way I imagined Batali—and executive chef Mark Ladner—would. The lamb three ways featured a lamb-chop, braised lamb shoulder and cool little fried lamb-tail balls, but I wasn’t dizzy in love. The most attractive entrées require sharing—the balcony eaves host large circular tables made for this—and while I watched longingly as a nearby server spent 15 minutes excavating an arctic char salt-baked in a Dead Sea’s worth of sodium, bigger doesn’t mean better. The braised veal shank for two had all the flavor of a standard-edition pot roast.
Still more mystifying was the cheese course, which basically ignores hundreds of great Italian cheeses and instead plays only with two-, four- and six-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano. I was especially disappointed, on one visit, to learn that the ten-course tasting menu merited only a chunk of the two-year-old, rather than a full flight. At $120 per person, not including wine, diners deserve better.
If Del Posto were the creation of some chef fresh from Florence, he’d be crowned a pasta wunderkind. Batali, alas, lives by higher standards. Towards the end of one meal, an elegant man at the next table told me that Del Posto wasn’t bad, but that he planned to stick with Babbo, where he dines every week. I can’t say I blame him.